in search of the cerebral

Even though it was damp, abnormally cold and often rainy when I was in San Francisco, at least the landscape was an optimistic green. Not so in Boston, where everything is still in shades of winter brown and gray. Today the wind is howling, and though no weather forecast mentions snow, it’s been flurrying heavily for at least an hour. The wind is blowing so hard that the flakes are moving horizontally. When I watch them fly by my window, and it seems as if my apartment is racing forward.

It seems like a good day to stay inside and drink coffee and write, which I have in fact done this morning. Alas, I do have travel lit class tonight, so I can’t hide from the weather for much longer.

My brief burst of writing this morning produced the beginning of my next chapter, so I am in limbo no more. I just turned in another chapter last night, which has me a little nervous. You”d think that after 3.5 semesters of writing workshops I would be immune to that, but there’s still that feeling of hanging from a precipice that lasts over the week from when I turn the piece in, to the following class when it is discussed. At some level I feel this last chapter (about my experiences with food in Korea and revelations about travel that come as a result) is not complex enough, or not smart enough. I worry that it is cliched in some way. I have been reading a lot of cerebral writers — both classmates and published authors — who make complexity, universality and themes beyond their own epiphanies seem easy and natural in their writing. These are things I struggle with.

I’ve finished Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express for class tonight. I have never sought out Theroux’s books, though he is considered to be a travel writing icon of sorts. What I have read of his work I have found tainted by his pompous, often racist, condescending attitude toward the people he meets on his journeys and the landscapes they inhabit. He can be an annoying, sometimes patronizing narrator. So I dreaded reading this one, which describes a series of train journeys he takes from Boston all the way down to Patagonia. A decent idea for a travel book, I suppose, if you leave aside the notion that one can’t really experience a country, its people, and their culture from a train.

Theroux does a surprisingly decent job of it, considering his vantage point. I still found him pompous and annoying…. For example, he seems to need to approve (or more often, disapprove) of ideas being posited by people about their own countries’ development. (which recalls the fact that Theroux was thrown out of the Peace Corps for helping to organize a coup in the country he had been posted to.) And then there’s the sillier stuff. Just to give you a sense: A girl he has been admiring (as he does often, despite his very much married status) appears on a platform while he is in Mexico. Theroux writes, “[She was] holding a magazine she had just bought. When I saw it was a comic book, most of my ardor died: I find it discouraging to see a pretty woman reading a comic book.”

Anyway, I had my issues with the book, but I found that pompous old Theroux had enough insights and interesting experiences to somehow sustain me through the 404 pages of incessant train journeys. A number of these had to do with his musing on travel itself, which I found very interesting (and which may have caused me to worry over whether my own writing is cliche since he points out many standard travel writing maneuvers and then derides them mercilessly.) For example: “The literature of travel has become measly; the standard opening, that farcical nose-against-the-porthole view from the plane’s tilted fuselage.”

Well, tonight the book will be dismantled and picked apart by our lit professor who I would describe as an ardently politically correct post-colonialist with Marxist leanings. It has already been picked at by a literary criticism text we were assigned, though I thought the author chose the wrong things to pick at. It may be that I just got rubbed the wrong way because she also does a fair amount of picking at Joan Didion (for her 1980s book Salvador which I have not read) and it seemed unjust. I hate literary criticism, because when you read it you really just want to ask the author, “Well, what should the writer have done instead?” They never tell you that. I know that isn’t the point, but that’s why I wasn’t an English major. I can’t stomach the endless meanings assigned to writing that the authors may have had no intention of conveying. I just want to talk about the quality of the writing and the ways in which the author succeeds so that I can learn from what I read and apply it to my own writing.

But I digress. I am now reading Beautiful Swimmers, the 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning book about Chesapeake Bay crabs and watermen. It’s more compelling than I expected, though it is a bit dated. This weekend I must attack V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India, which for no real reason I am not looking forward to.


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